Loud music, rude servers and odd art can all be forgiven, ignored or overlooked at a restaurant where one likes the food. But no matter how sweet the staff, how pleasing the room or how happy the customers appear to be, without regular flashes of kitchen brilliance, one has a tough time nudging a restaurant beyond recommended if ones in the area status.
So have been my dining experiences at Angels American Bistro, a sweet, comfortable, happy little restaurant in Venice that has become a high-tone if casual hub for locals, including several friends, whove been raving about the place since its opening last year. At a recent dinner, I immediately see why they like the room: Its full of light, with dozens of blown-glass lamps that resemble enormous tortoise shells, and banquettes made plush with Casbah-like throw pillows. I also appreciate the open wine racks in the entryway, showing a truly excellent selection organized by vineyard. When the affable owner, Martin Lee, suggests a pinot that turns out to be jammy and supple, all is off to a good start.
A perusal of the menu shows a heavy Asian influence at this American bistro, and we start with tempura vegetable rolls, wrapped in nori and prettily presented standing on end in a balsamic vinaigrette laced with basil honey. The dipping sauce is complex -- sweet, smoky and deep; the rolls less so, as they are slightly greasy. Tropical tomato soup arrives in a white bowl 12 inches across; the aromas of coconut milk and ginger are tantalizing, yet they never really harmonize -- the soup tastes like tomato and coconut milk and ginger, and thats it. Better is a special soup of zucchini and yellow squash, spiked with champagne vinegar and Tabasco and lots of white pepper, which goes nicely with the wheat-raisin in the bread basket. Baby scallops, lightly encrusted with potato flakes, sit atop baby Japanese greens and soba noodles gone a little gummy from too much sesame dressing.
The entrees inspire hope, as they are gorgeous and clever. Giant, tempura-fried asparagus peep over the rim of, again, a deep white bowl, filled with arugula, hot udon noodles tossed with lots of toasted-sesame oil, and, on top, a salmon fillet grilled, the menu tells us, over cherry wood. Though we do not taste the wood smoke, the fillet is beautifully cooked, and everything else is right; its just that . . . theres no thrill. Oven-barbecued baby lamp chops, their gaminess freshened with sprigs of mint, arrive with potatoes mashed with caramelized onions and lots of black pepper, beneath which hide a row of nicely cooked asparagus. (But why is it hiding?) As someone who feels the only allowable combo of fish and cheese should be spread on a bagel, I surprise myself by enjoying fusilli loaded with Cheddar, sauteed shrimp, scallops and lobster, and topped with toasted bread crumbs. While I find the pool of that balsamic-honey sitting at the bottom superfluous, I do appreciate this lavish take on mac & cheese as the sort of dish one would, if one felt like dealing with the shellfish, make for oneself, and eat, in pajamas, in front of the television. The hominess continues with a mango-berry cobbler, its deep purple goo seeping through giant brown sugar crumbles and tasting like a Pop-Tart for grown-ups.
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Its a good meal, though not a great one. Perhaps lunch is Angels forte? Again, Lee is a consummate host, bringing my friend and me a complimentary basket of onion rings, so deeply fried they taste only of crumb batter. A hot-and-cold rock-shrimp cocktail, neither hot nor cold, mixes chunks of avocado, red onion and a tangy tomato sauce, but I find the gray veins of rock shrimp off-putting enough to eat only half. A soup special, this time of English peas, proves a better starter; the color is spring green, the consistency frothy, the taste fresh from the garden. I enjoy a bistro burger, a gigantic patty supporting a tower of crisp bacon, melted Cheddar and grilled onions. I also like the micro cobb salad, red-leaf lettuce and radicchio with tiny-dice turkey and bacon and specks of blue cheese, though the flavor of the dressing, which should bring it all together, is thin, tasting like a cross between miso and bottled Italian. What is it?
Eggless vinaigrette, Lee tells us, mentioning that chef David Northrup is new to Angels, and that the menu will be changing soon.
My friend, who lives nearby, tells me that, while she likes the space, Im too snobby to make it my neighborhood place because of the location, within an office court off Abbot Kinney. If shes not willing to go five blocks, I cant see driving across town. Though if youre in the area . . .
636 Venice Blvd., Venice; (310) 827-5878. Lunch Mon.--Fri., dinner Tues.--Sun., brunch Sat. and Sun. Starters $6--$14, entrees $8--$24. AE, D, MC, V.